Snow’s uncomfortable night at Sir Victor’s suite

I stayed at the Cathay Hotel, which was once Asia’s finest hostelry. It was now called the Peace Hotel and was exceedingly so: quiet, orderly, the restaurant little used and subdued compared with its former aggressive gaiety, its famous bar and night club extinct, its lobby shops closed at dusk, and few lights on after ten.

One got the impression here, as at certain large and empty provincial hotels, that the Chinese had not yet quite decided how to utilize these rooms since the Russians left. But the Cathay was still a fine place to live, furnished much as it was when owned by Sir Victor Sassoon: the simulated Chinese décor a bit tarnished now but the plumbing super, cuisine ditto, and more new American cars for hire outside its doors than anywhere in China.

I was offered my choice of Sir Victor’s suite, usually reserved for VIPs, or an ordinary double room about the dimensions of the Mayflower. A single would do me nicely, I said, but I asked to see the suite. It was in the tower, high above the river, pseudo-Tudor, handsomely paneled and filled with light from wide leaded windows. The bedroom was sumptuously furnished with king-sized beds adjoining two large tiled bathrooms; there was a dressing room the size of a small flat, a private entrance foyer, servants’ quarters, a bar, a kitchen and pantry, a private dining room with a fireplace and a spacious living room with another fireplace.

“How much?” I asked the China Intousits agent.

“Thirty-five yuan a day.”

“That’s less than US$15. At the Waldorf it would cost me 100.”

Betraying incurable bourgeois romanticism, I said, “I’ve like to wake up in the morning knowing how Victor Sassoon felt when he owned Shanghai. I’ll take it for a night.”

I did not rest comfortably. For a long time, as I looked down at the river life, I was filled with remembrance of things past in the city where I had invested or misspent some years of my youth, fallen in love and into a brief but eventful marriage, seen two wars and many men destroyed in futile combat, until, engulfed by China, I had turned abroad-to more wars.

Returning to my present magnificence, I tried the first bed but could not sleep. Then I tried the other, soft and blissful, but had no better luck.

I ended on the living room couch and woke up at dawn. If that was the way Sir Victor had felt when he owned Shanghai I did not envy him. Perhaps he had better company than my thoughts.


— Excerpt from “Red China Today” (1963) by American journalist Edgar Snow, author of “Red Star over China”